If you were on Twitter this weekend, you probably saw #AWP14 trending. If you were on Facebook, you no doubt noticed a lot of photos from Seattle (the Space Needle! Chihuly Glass! Pike Place Market!) and people quoting various writers. And if you read last week's newsletter/most recent post, you know that I was one of the many writers who attended three full days of panels, readings and an enormous bookfair at AWP in Seattle.
When I say many, I mean many. I heard estimates between 11,000 and 13,000. The official AWP website says "over 10,00" and also that it is the largest literary conference in North America.
I believe it. Events were held at the Sheraton (the official conference hotel, where I stayed, one of a gazillion hotels that housed us), the huge convention center and the convention center annex. I've never been on so many escalators in my life. There are events all day long and into the evening at these venues, as well as numerous off-site parties, readings, and get-togethers at night.
AWP stands for Association of Writers and Writing Programs, and the organization is comprised of 50,000 writers, 500 college and university programs, and 125 writers' conferences and centers. (I'm quoting from the website.) Many of these programs and centers exhibit at the conference, along with numerous literary journals and small presses. The Bookfair is unbelievably huge and I've learned over the years not to buy or collect too much, or the tote bag you get upon picking up your badge will not fit in your luggage for the return trip home.
The schedule features panels, readings and, if you're a really big author, an interview or discussion about your work. But most of the day is taken up by panels of three or four writers plus a moderator. Any member can submit a panel (I've got a group in discussion about submitting for next year and have been on a panel in the past). The subjects vary wildly, from topics on craft, to pedagogy, to trends in publishing, to information on how to create a winning reading. Anything related to literature might find a home on an AWP panel. As a wild guess, I'd say there are upwards of 30 panels and readings at each time slot during the day, of which there are six, and then there are two time slots for readings in the evening as well. The selection is, to be honest, overwhelming. And it's a crap shoot as well, with the panels varying widely in quality (which is why there's no stigma attached to arriving or leaving in the middle of a presentation).
AWP is about as literary a conference as you're going to get. (Some might same that a few panels even lean toward the arcane.) You don't attend expecting to hear the latest bestselling romance author speak, that's for sure. And it is a stronghold of writers from traditional university programs with legacy publishing house contracts. Which is why it was so interesting to me to see Amazon all over the place--as sponsor, exhibitor, and host of two panels. Indeed, Jon Fine, director of author and publishing relations at Amazon, joked that he used to feel he should wear a Kevlar vest to protect himself at such events, though things have changed in the last year or so. (I meant to write more about these panels in this post but since it is already getting so long I will save that info for another day.)
I gotta say, being around this many people for several days is wonderful--and also a bit much. I think of myself as a balance between introvert and extrovert. I crave time alone spent writing, but at the end of the day, I'm ready for human contact. This year at AWP, I realized that maybe I'm more on the introverted scale than I thought. I'm actually very outgoing and easily strike up conversations with strangers. But, after a couple of panels and a stroll through the bookfair, I needed to go back to my hotel and get some downtime.
A non-writing friend asked me if I was meeting new people. Yes, and no. Mostly I hung out with my dear friend Diana, which was the best treat ever. (She has an amazing new book of poems just out called Lust, which I highly recommend.) Diana's son Josh runs a hip literary journal called The Newer York Press and it was fun to meet him and the people who work with him. I reconnected with old friends from my MFA days and that is always a pleasure. I had some entertaining brief chats with other writers. But the conference is so big and overwhelming that it is not conducive to meeting new folks. (The place where I did meet people was on the train. My seatmate on the way up was also attending AWP so we chatted happily off and on from Portland to Seattle, and the woman I shared a cab with from the station to the hotel was also from Portland. Turns out we are pretty sure we used to know each other when we were both active with a local writing group.)
To me, attending AWP is acknowledgment that there is a huge like-minded community out there that cares about the same things that I do. It's fun to wander around town and see other people with the tell-tale lime-green lanyard attached to their badge and feel a connection. It's thrilling to walk the street from the hotel to the convention center in a throng of writers. It's amazing to come home with your head buzzing from all the information it has just absorbed--and also to feel energized and excited about the possibilities for putting words on the page.
So, if you get the chance, attend AWP some time. You don't have to be affiliated with any university or writing program, all you have to be is interested in writing. Next year the conference will be in Minneapolis in April. I'm pretty sure I'll be there!
What's your favorite writing conference? Do you make it a point to attend conferences regularly?